Sunday 18 November 2012

Mammals versus dinosaurs

The London Review Bookshop, currently the best bookshop in London, imho, was packed solid on Thursday night for a discussion on small presses. What could have brought out so many people? The gamechangers (don't worry, I'll return to writing like a human in a second) seemed to be the Penguin/Random merger and the great success of small independent publishers in taking up half the recent Booker prize list. Indeed, several Salt authors were in the audience. The panel was also an attraction - Charles Boyle (rapidly making a name for himself in the small press world with his CB Editions and TLS articles), David Lea from the bookshop, Nicholas Murray from Rack Press and the broadsheet voice of the indie, Nicholas Lezard. Writers Patrick McGuinness sadly had to call off due to a family illness, but many writers contributed from the floor.
Despite all this, I did not feel that the event quite caught fire. Perhaps the numbers and resultant poor sightlines were the cause, which also meant that speakers from the floor could be heard but not seen. But nevertheless, there were many gems.
The opening remarks from one of the Bookshop staff referred to small presses as the guerrilla bands in the mountains, but also as the descendants of the first publisher of Ulysses. More prosaic imagery was provided by Nicholas L. who described our situation as "mammals versus dinosaurs" while more prosaically still Charles described small presses as lacking in resources, but being more flexible and with the ability to publish less economic titles than the big publishers, who have to pay for their large staffs and premises. We were also compared to the micro-breweries in their struggle against Watney's Red Barrell, or the record labels once favoured by John Peel. Being devil's advocate, however, Nicholas M. said there was a danger that if you say "small press" people go all gooey in the same way they do if you say "rainforest". "Being small does not automatically mean good books." So are they good? Well, the London Review Bookshop is "publisher blind" according to David Lea, which has meant that over ten years half their best-sellers have come from small presses "but they have to look different to Penguin books." He also felt that small presses were particularly strong in certain areas popular in his shop, mentioning essays.
But how do you define small press books? Charles - "you know one when you see one". While small press publishers, Nicholas M. - are "small, intimate, friendly, nice". Do self-published books count? Not really. The Bookshop itself rarely stocks self-published books as they like the idea of a gatekeeper and that "a book is improved by a collaborative process". None of the editors in the room rose to disagree.
Whilst generally there was a mood that readers are being let down by the mainstream publishers, the difficult question was - Nicholas L. - "how do you make a sustainable living for authors?" Indeed, do small presses encourage small ambition? Whilst Charles said "I want to publish the books I want to read" he admitted that he was lousy at selling them. For some writers, perhaps those less in need of money than some, being published by small presses was not a second choice but a preferred choice due to the other benefits mentioned earlier. That comment came from a Salt writer. Michelle Roberts, perhaps the best-known author in the audience (who, by the way, cheerily mentioned that the panel was rather dated in being all-male), said that she - and I paraphrase terribly - makes her living from her commercial books but is also very pleased to be published by small presses as well. This goes part of the way to answering the question of money for writers. Small presses, however, are often the proving ground for writers that go on to big presses - but should not be seen just as the nursery class. Not sure who said that. And of course the big strengths of the small press world were in poetry and in translation.
Other comments from the audience brought forth a comparison between the small press scene here and the more established scene in America; a justified concern that indie publishers are ignoring emerging markets such as India and, in the wake of mention of Pippa Middleton's disastrous Penguin book a comment by Nicholas Lezard that "the more a book sells the shittier it is". It is, however, beginning to look like even some Five Leaves titles will outsell Ms. Middleton's party planning book.
There was also some discussion on the craft of making good books, and the way we choose to work. Charles Boyle says he prints with a particular printer because they go out for a drink together, and is distributed by Central Books (as we are) because he likes a gossip with the chap who runs it, which counters one view - a quote from Orwell?? - that "inside a small press is a large press struggling to get out."
The evening ended with a rude comment by a publisher (I should not have had that second glass of wine) about central buying by the chains, after which, I hope, people decimated the display of CB Editions and Rack Press books.
On the train back to Nottingham, by delicious irony, my read was JK Rowling's A Casual Vacancy. The book has a "will this do?" cover seemingly designed by someone on work experience. Page twelve features the give-up-now warning sentence: "His light-brown hair was still thick, his frame was almost as wiry as it had been in its twenties and the crinkles at the corners of his eyes were merely attractive, but Ruth's return to nursing after a long break had confronted her anew about with the million and one ways the human body could malfunction." I'd like to think no small press would have let this through.

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